The Adam Sandler I remember was one of the funniest men around. I first saw him in Happy Gilmore, a movie about a poor, angry schlub who wants to play hockey. Instead, he finds himself playing golf in order to make some money to save his grandmother’s house. Sure, it isn’t the most complex narrative, but generally you don’t watch his early movies expecting to find profound truths about the human condition.
As his career progressed, he continued to be funny, but his narratives became a bit more complex. He starred in The Wedding Singer, which has one of the funniest catchphrases that I have ever heard (this is Jimmy Moore saying that ain’t no sock in my crotch). Then The Waterboy came out, which featured Sandler as a grown man who can’t quite leave the clutches of his overbearing mother, and has to figure out the world with the help of his trusty coach. The movie is actually quite sad if you think about it.
Big Daddy came out during a time when the traditional family unit was coming into question in the public consciousness (Jonathan Franzen would write a critically acclaimed novel about it — The Corrections). In the movie, Sandler portrays Sonny Koufax, who illegally states that he is a young orphan’s father and tries to “adopt” the child, all in an effort to prove to his girlfriend that he has finally matured. After Koufax gets dumped, he tries to give the kid back, but discovers that he can’t. As you probably know, he ends up thinking of the boy as his own son.
Sandler continued to make these sorts of movies, which were all commercial successes but critical failures. But then something happened: He began to act in some serious movies.
Consider a movie like Punch-Drunk Love, where he plays a business owner who is lonely and has bouts with rage and despair. Sandler took on another somber role in Reign Over Me (also a personal favorite), where he plays a deranged man who dropped out of his dental practice after his family died during 9/11. The movie is one of the most dramatic renderings of life in a post-9/11 world and the post-traumatic effect that tragedy had on human beings. During this time period, he also starred in Judd Apatow’s Funny People, where he plays a low-brow comedian who learns that he has cancer and is fairly sure that he will soon die.
I’m not sure if you’ve seen the work that he has done lately, but it’s nothing like the movies I just listed above. Why? Because neither Punch-Drunk Love nor Reign Over Me turned much profit; they weren’t commercially successful.
Still, I posit that Sandler is an incredible actor, a much better actor than we give him credit for. Unfortunately, the movies where he can show his actual acting chops are never moneymakers. Men, Women & Children had a good role for him to play, but the movie didn’t quite grasp what it set out to accomplish. Thus, his performance was overshadowed by that failure.
So, he continues to do movies like Grown Ups 2, which brought in $247 million in the box office. Or Jack and Jill, a movie that grossed nearly $150 million. It’s actually quite sad, and I’m not sure what that says about him or about us.
Of course, movies are meant to entertain, and not every movie you see is going to be 12 Years a Slave. Not everything has to be high-brow in order to be a good movie. But there are ways to for comedy movies to be something more than just cheap jokes, as both The Big Lebowski and 40-Year Old Virgin have shown. Comedy movies, especially the good ones, have a way of masking deep, and often sad, aspects of humanity. You just have to do the hard work of dissecting it.
It’s a shame that Sandler hasn’t had the opportunity to do a film worthy of that dissection.
Previously from Christopher Cruz:
♦ Will Derrick Rose Ever Return to MVP Form?
♦ The Heat is On: Miami Acquires Goran Dragic
♦ Why I’d Prefer Harper Lee Not Publish Again
♦ Why I am Drawn to “Togetherness”
♦ The Deflated (But Not Yet Defeated) New England Patriots